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Wearing only my black suit, I’m shivering in the blowing snow watching Jacqueline, my lover of 30 years, pacing back and forth beneath the glow of parking lot lights. She’s dressed in high heels, fishnet stockings and a red velvet dress, slit to the hip. In the whirling Calgary whiteness she looks like some bizarre Monet winter streetscape. “Never again,” she whispers, shaking her head.
We’ve snuck outside to settle our nerves, but hearing the bursts of applause and the mournful bandoneon music coming from inside the dancehall, our goose pimples are turning to cold sweats. Glass doors behind us fly open and our tuxedoed tango instructor is standing in the doorway. “You’re up next!” he shouts.
Two years earlier, on a lark, I’d surprised Jacqueline on Valentine’s Day with six tango lessons because she loved watching the Argentine tango on Dancing With The Stars. A pretty bold move on my part, if I say so myself, considering that while Jacqueline’s always been able to strut her stuff on the dance floor with the best of them, my dance-move repertoire consisted primarily of the side-to-side shuffle with a little shoulder-to-shoulder finger snapping thrown into the mix.
Now, 80 lessons later and after countless hours practising in our living room and months of merciless goading from Leo, we were set to perform at the Tango and Latin Gala in Calgary.
Such is the allure of tango: it sucks you in, takes hold of your life. More than a dance, maybe even more than sex, it’s a language allowing two human beings to intimately come together physically, emotionally and creatively.
Truth is, I’ve fallen hard for tango’s charms. I love its music; its songs of heartbreak, lust, loneliness and philosophy. I love its freedom, the perpetual giving and taking between partners, an interplay stimulating desire and improvisation. On the tango floor, all the couples are moving counter-clockwise but each one is doing something slightly different. I love the moments I pause, inviting Jacqueline to take control, and the satisfaction I feel when she rewards me with some surprising, titillating response – an ankle seductively slid along my shin, a leg wrapped around my hip or plunged between my feet, a foot snapped beneath my knee before flicking high into the air. I love knowing how tango’s beauty swept around the world in the tangomania before the First World War, crossing continents, social classes and the “other side of the tracks.” But most of all I love how tango’s real power lies in the way the dance evolved from its earliest beginnings, when women, above all else, were truly prized.
In the late 1890s, the streets of Buenos Aires were overflowing with newly arriving young, poor, immigrant men. Leaving families behind, they’ve come from all over Europe and Africa to seek their fortunes. Most men have been promised a few months’ free room and board or the reimbursement of their passage, but upon arriving in the city things quickly turned mean. The bustling port reeks of slaughterhouse kill floors, tanneries, fish, rotting garbage and testosterone. Street corners are filled with clusters of rugged, mustachioed men eyeing potential prey. Knife fights are commonplace. A city of 600,000 souls will swell to 1.8 million in less than two decades. Brothels are thriving, but there’s another craze. Men longing for the touch of a reputable woman are told to do one thing – learn to dance the tango.
More than a century later and half a world away, we embrace heart to heart, knees slightly bent, balancing on the balls of our feet. The music begins. I lead with my chest, my feet only serving to stop my heart from falling to the floor. Jacqueline follows, flawlessly, improvising beautiful shapes at all the right cues – ochos, voleos, planeos, ganchos, colgadas, boleos, secadas. Soon, the crowd disappears and it’s only us.
Men initially learned to dance the tango by dancing with other men. For months, sometimes years, men would first begin by mastering the woman’s role. Only after fully understanding what a woman wanted would a man be granted the chance to lead. Older male mentors taught their proteges that the goal was not to be a great dancer but to give a woman a wonderful experience. And women had the power to choose. Men were aplenty. Using the cabeceo, the subtle eye contact and nodding of the head, a woman sitting at a table could silently signal: “Yes, I’ll dance with you.” or “No, not ever.” Women called the shots.
During our many private lessons, Leo Sato, a fantastic dance instructor and an Argentine tango purist, would often take me in his hands. It’s a revelation, humbling so, for me, a heterosexual man who rarely dances with any other women besides my wife, to experience the thrill of leading or being led by a powerful tango master. Only in Leo’s hands could I fully appreciate the splendor of two people moving in effortless unison.
Back at the gala, I spin 180 degrees, extend my left leg backward, hooking the top of my left foot behind Jacqueline’s left heel. Pulling her forward, I turn her over so she’s lying face-up and stretched out, cradled in my left arm. The music ends. We look into each other’s blue eyes knowing we’ll never perform in public again.
A few years have passed since that nerve-wracking night. We ended up performing one more time. But that was it. For us, sharing our tango somehow cheapened it. Like a glorious secret, we now keep our tango just to ourselves.
We’ve sold the Calgary home with the large living room and the wide-planked oak floors where we spent so many hours practising. We now live in a tiny downtown Vancouver apartment. Our dance floor is the size of a walk-in closet and we have to move furniture and roll up an area carpet to dance. But the views of English Bay are breathtaking. No matter where we are or where life takes us, we’ll always dance the tango.
Greg Strathern lives in Vancouver.